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Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA

February 16, 2016

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Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss make a compelling case for changing the way the big business of college athletics is done.

Being a sports fan means supporting, with your mere attention and audience, some rather shady organizations. The corruption in organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee is well documented. Yet cities around the world still fight for the privilege to, as Charles Pierce put it in a great Grantland article about the Boston bid, transform themselves "into an armed camp with corporate sponsors" for weeks to host their events. That is, of course, because it is big business. It brings in a lot of people and money.

America's "big three" sports aren't much more commendable. To watch an NFL game is to watch grown men shorten their lifespans in front of us for our pleasure, and astronomical profit for owners, even as Sports Illustrated estimates that "78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress" in their first three years out of the League. The NBA and new Bucks owners (New York City hedge fund owners) basically shook down local governments here in Wisconsin for hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new arena, telling the public they'd leave otherwise, and that is par for the course in pro sports these days. As the public hollered in outrage at athletes for using so-called performance enhancing drugs in baseball, most of the wealthy owners of that league were busy raking in public funds to finance new stadiums for those athletes to play in.

College sports used to be seen as different. These were amateur student athletes playing for the pure love of the game, representing noble institutions of higher education. Increasingly, that myth is vanishing. The two big college sports, Division I football and basketball, are big business, and have been for decades. The organization that oversees these sports and regulates the athletes in them, the NCAA, generated almost a billion dollars in revenue in 2014. And that's not all. As Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss tell us in Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA:

An economist named Dan Rascher, who is a character in this book, estimates that college sports in its totality generated some $13 billion, which, incredibly, in more than the most lucrative professional sports league in America, the National Football League.

 

That's not a problem, per se. Business is business… except when it isn't. Because while the highest paid public employee in a vast majority of states is either a college basketball or a football coach, the players themselves are paid nothing. And the NCAA exists primarily to protect that paradigm. As Nocera has concluded, it exists "in no small part to artificially suppress the wages of its labor force—namely the players." And not only do they disallow any of the vast wealth created by athletes to make their way to those athletes, they actively ruin the career and reputation of many of them through their overzealous investigations of players suspected of accepting money or favors in any way—even favors from family friends that their parents may have accepted just to make ends meet while the athletes were in high school, as in the outrageous case of Ryan Boatright, whose story opens the book. 

I have to say I was surprised when Joe Nocera, coauthor (with Bethany McLean) of All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, started writing about the NCAA on the op-ed page of The New York Times, but I shouldn't have been. He has a history for exposing the underbelly of rotten organizations and institutions. And the NCAA is increasingly rotten and clearly unjust. Who better than Nocera, who previously explored and exposed the center of the corruption of at the institutions at the center of the financial collapse, to document the rot at the center of the NCAA?

The NCAA's bylaws state that "Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises." There is no word on whether that statement extends to exploitation by the NCAA itself, or the schools they attend in what is essentially their time off from the full time job elite college athletics have become. But of course the statement does not apply to the NCAA, because the NCAA is not a professional and commercial enterprise; it's a cartel—a racket masquerading as a non-profit.

I have found I can't turn away from sports, even as I know the moral deficiencies in the system. But I don't think we should turn away from those deficiencies, either. We should look at them squarely and soberly, and make the case for a better system if there is one, even if it's just among fellow fans. In Indentured, Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss do a brilliant and thorough job of reporting the facts and making that case.

We have 20 copies available.

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